The New World
The joke goes that in a career of 32 years Terrence Malick has made four films, and each one lasts eight years. If you've seen any of them ("Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," and now "The New World,") you know that his artistic metabolism is quite a bit slower than yours or mine. "The New World" doesn't last that long, but in his attempt to present a two-sided vision of the way in which alien cultures view and strike each other he's somehow forgotten to give us any insights. His camera, which as always in his films speaks for him, merely observes; we are as frustrated by the walls he erects between us and his story as his people are by the walls between the two cultures. As a critic I am frustrated when an artist refuses to make choices, refuses to comprehend, refuses to offer a vision larger than the events he records; and Malick is almost willful in his refusal here.
"The New World" is the story of the English settlers coming to Virginia in the spring of 1607 to found a colony. In a paradisiacal land they meet the local Indians - in an inspired phrase they call them, rightly, 'the naturals.' Chief Powhatan's daughter, unnamed here but called Pocahontas by history and played by the exquisite 14-year-old Q'orianka Kilcher, meets Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the two begin a slow dance toward love.
But here is where my problems with the film begin. Farrell's Smith is barely articulate; Malick's camera gazes at him endlessly as he doesn't speak. We are no doubt supposed to understand that he is conflicted, but we never learn why. It seems endemic in Malick's films that dialogue must be subordinated to image, but in a film like "The New World," which is all about cultures meeting for the first time, it is only logical that they must communicate verbally. Malick relies instead on voiceovers of interior thoughts by his people - they are too short and fragmented to be called monologues - in which we can pick up momentary glimpses of the human beings within.
The film moves on: Smith leaves suddenly without a word to his lover; she is disowned by her father and must move into the colony where she is christened 'Rebecca,' and it is as Rebecca that she is found by John Rolfe, whom she eventually marries and with whom she bears a child. King James I invites her and a few other Indians to London, where she is presented as a princess; she and John live in a country mansion, but when she wishes to return to Virginia both the film and history tell us that she dies.
So few films rely on image these days that many critics have responded to this one with gushy love. I see it differently: Malick has substituted postcard views for artistic insight and weakened his film almost beyond saving. And sadly, I have another quibble with "The New World:" Malick has his Indians gyrate and skip excitedly, like a third-rate corps de ballet; I have seen enough of American Indian culture to say with some confidence that a more accurate image would be one of quiet, centered body language, the kind of reserve that for almost 400 years since 1607 has tormented arrogant Europeans to the point of committing murder and genocide. It is a sad tale.